Pop culture is filled with annoyance and irritations. We can turn on the TV and lament the downfall of civilization because as bad as reality shows, shock jocks, and political pundits can be, perhaps we’re worse for giving them attention in the first place. At one point or another, some Americans have probably had a dark fantasy about taking out the trash of American culture because wouldn’t it be nice if we could get rid of all the fame-whores, mean-spirited celebrities, and the ordinary citizens who can’t get enough of the first two. It would be nice to have a release valve and writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait provides that in God Bless America. But he never probes deeper to what that fantasy says about us and instead indulges the audience by using his characters as mouthpieces and never realizing that his anti-heroes are as shallow and narcissistic as the people they’re killing.
Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) hates his life. He’s divorced, his daughter is spoiled brat, he works at a dead-end job with morons, and lives in a shitty apartment with ass-hole neighbors and their screaming baby. In the first five minutes, it looks like Goldthwait will be as daring in his previous films, but the darkly comic act Frank fantasizes about in the opening scene is about as edgy as God Bless America gets. Instead, Goldthwait indulges the banal frustrations of the audiences by providing endless rants against American Idol, My Sweet Sixteen (the names of the TV shows are changed and spoofed, of course), shock jocks, and other annoyances of pop culture.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor and feeling he has nothing left to lose, Frank goes on a road trip to kill the bratty star of the My Sweet Sixteen parody. He does so and his kill is witnessed by the manic pixie murder girl, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr). She convinces Frank that they need to go on a killing spree if they’re ever going to make their point about getting rid of all the things they hate. Things not included on that list: poverty, rape, and the murder of innocent people.
In 2005, conservative commentator Bernard Goldberg published a book entitled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken Is #37). In the book, Goldberg accuses Courtney Love, Janet Jackson, Barbara Streisand, Michael Moore, and other famous liberals of making America a “far more selfish, vulgar, and cynical place.” It’s almost word-for-word the accusation that Frank levels at the parodies of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and crass pop-culture, particularly reality shows. Of course, Frank’s actions are purposely exaggerated and I know Bobcat Goldthwait in no way condones violence against anyone. However, I feel it’s important to mention that in July 2008, Jim David Adkisson walked into his church and killed two people while wounding six others. He said he did it because he wanted to kill Democrats in Congress, Barack Obama, and the 100 people named in Bernard Goldberg’s book, but since he couldn’t get to them, he wanted to kill liberalism’s “foot soldiers”.
A real-world atrocity such as the one committed by Adkisson is obviously the work of a madman, but what does it say about the audience who I watched the film with last night and cheered Frank and Roxy’s slaughter of irritating people. I know no one in the theater would actually support killing Bill O’Reilly or the judges on American Idol, but Goldthwait never raises the important question concerning our anger: why are we so upset in the first place? Why aren’t we angry at corrupt politicians or greedy corporations or anyone who has actual power? Why give Frank an endless rant against American pop culture other than to have the audience cheer and applaud because we hate those things too? The answer is that like his protagonists/mouthpieces, Goldthwait can’t look past his own TV, and he won’t condemn Frank and Roxy for being just as shallow and narcissistic as the people they’re hunting. Even when Goldthwait has Roxy and Frank throw out petty annoyances like high fives and people who say “The Man” in a positive or negative connotation, those grievances stand alongside the “grand” crowd-pleasing rants against conservative pundits and reality TV icons.
Goldthwait doesn’t want to make us question our animosity towards pop culture. He wants to celebrate it and pat us on the head and tell us we’re right to hate trashy reality shows, the mean people on the TV, and jerks we encounter in our day-to-day lives. We’re right to hate them because they’re ruining America because America used to be awesome. In his climactic speech, Frank laments a time when we were kinder to each other, and he’s right. Just ask African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Women, or anyone who wasn’t a white Christian male. In another rant and without a hint of irony, Frank compares American Idol and its ilk to the entertainment of the coliseum and how it preceded the downfall of Roman civilization. Frank neglects to mention that in the coliseum they killed people for entertainment. That may happen on reality TV at some point down the road, but I suppose the gleeful fake murders of God Bless America will have to suffice for now.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: